ISIS extremists in Mozambique enslaved hundreds of women, girls as sex slaves: watchdog

Residents gather for a distribution of utensils organised by the Catholic relief organisation CARITAS in the village of Muagamula, outside Macomia, northern Mozambique on August 24, 2019.
Residents gather for a distribution of utensils organised by the Catholic relief organisation CARITAS in the village of Muagamula, outside Macomia, northern Mozambique on August 24, 2019. | AFP via Getty Images/MARCO LONGARI

Militants linked to the Islamic State terror group in the southern African country of Mozambique have enslaved more than 600 women and girls, many of which have been abused and sold as sex slaves for as low as $600, a report by Human Rights Watch reveals.

The United Kingdom-based watchdog organization reports that the armed group Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah, also known as Al-Shabab, in the northern province of Cabo Delgado has forced younger, healthy-looking and lighter-skinned women and girls in their custody to “marry” their fighters.

Others have been sold to foreign fighters for between $600 and $1,800, according to the report. And, abducted foreign women and girls have been released after their families paid ransom.

The oil-rich Cabo Delgado province, a coastal region on the Indian Ocean, has suffered an emergence of a jihadi movement that has displaced thousands and killed hundreds since 2017. In 2018, the terror group pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In 2019, the Islamic State confirmed the group as an affiliate and has claimed responsibility for some attacks. 

Militants abducted women and girls during attacks in various Cabo Delgado districts. HRW interviewed 37 people, including former abductees, relatives, security sources and government officials between August 2019 and October 2021. 

A 33-year-old woman stated that local Al-Shabaab fighters held her aunt at gunpoint so that she would identify houses with girls between the ages of 12 and 17 in Mocimboa da Praia. The source counted 203 girls but is unsure if all the girls were abducted. 

“Some mothers were begging the fighters to take them instead of their daughters,” a 27-year-old man who was interviewed said. “But one of the [militants] said they didn’t want old women with children and diseases.”

A former abductee from Mocimboa da Praia said he was forced to select the women and girls for sex with fighters when they return from military operations. 

“Those [women] who refused were punished with beatings, and no food for days,” he said. 

Human Rights Watch Africa Director Masi Segun said that an unknown number of women and girls remain in captivity in Mozambique, although regional security forces have rescued some of them. Those who remain captive face “horrific abuses daily, including enslavement and rape by Al-Shabab fighters.”

“Mozambican authorities should intensify efforts to rescue and reintegrate survivors into their communities, and promptly ensure their humane treatment and access to medical and psychosocial services,” Segun stressed in a statement. 

The Al-Shabab group in the majority-Christian country of Mozambique is not believed to have any connection with the deadly Somalia-based terror group with the same name.

Last November, ISIS-linked militants beheaded over 50 people, including women and children, and abducted others in weekend raids in the Miudumbe and Macomia districts of the Cabo Delgado province.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the Cabo Delgado province had suffered from at least 776 “organized violence events” since 2017, and as of January 2021, 2,578 “fatalities from organized violence” and 1,305 “fatalities from civilian targeting.” 

The United Nations estimates more than 745,000 people are internally displaced in Mozambique due to the Islamic extremism that erupted in 2017.

Mozambique also ranks as the 45th worst country for Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2021 World Watch List. This 2021 report is the first time the country has been listed on Open Doors’ annual list. Extremist attacks have killed many Christians, and terrorists have burned churches and schools.

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